Why Change is So Hard

In a fascinating article titled “Change or Die” (Fast Company, May 1, 2005), Alan Deutsch man described the IBM conference “Global Innovation Outlook,” where leading thinkers proposed solutions to big problems. At one point Dr. Edward Miller; dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at John Hopkins University addressed the crisis in healthcare. Dr. Miller pointed out that in the case of patients suffering from potentially fatal heart disease; heart specialists annually perform coronary-artery bypass surgery on about 600,000 patients and less invasive angioplasties on another 1.3 million.

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According to Dr. Miller, half of those who undergo bypass surgery will end up with re-clogged arteries within a few years. Patients who receive angioplasties will suffer blockages again within a few months. Both conditions require further surgery. Why such long odds? Lifestyle. As it turns out, even though doctors tell patients they can dramatically lower the odds of going under the knife again by adopting a healthier lifestyle, 90 percent of people-at-risk do not change their lifestyle to battle their illness.The moral of the story? Adapt or die.

Business leaders, teams, and organizations face life-or-death situations every day. But even when you know you really should make some crucial changes, your basic human nature quite often overrules logic. “Adapt or die!” shouts the smart strategist.  “Wait!” counters the Neanderthal brain that sits in the back of every human skull. “That’s not the way we do things around here!”

Adapting to any situation takes resilience, grit, perseverance, and a major expenditure of energy. But Mother Nature has designed every cell in our brains and bodies to conserve as much energy as possible. We are hard-wired to fight change. No wonder it takes superhuman commitment and strength to do something as simple as stop eating those fat-laden cookies and start walking two miles a day. Whether you need to get yourself on a fitness program or lead your company to a dominant market share, you won’t accomplish much if you ignore the basic rules of human nature that make people steadfastly resist any type of change, even the ones that could save their lives. Despite the fact that each of us and our teams and organizations are as unique as digital fingerprints, we share some fundamental psychological characteristics.

When it comes to changing almost anything (a belief, a prejudice, a hairstyle, or even friends), basic psychology and the way the brain works can interfere with critical thinking and decision-making. It happens because:

  • We seldom welcome change gladly.
  • The brain’ shard wiring predisposes us to habitual, routine behavior and decision-making.
  • We let psychological biases influence our reaction to change and our ability to make decisions that cause change.


Despite these fundamentals, we also know that the human brain is adaptable and people can, do and will change under the right conditions. Creating those conditions for our own personal change or a larger organizational change requires a deep understanding of human nature and how perception, emotion, psychological bias, mindset, resilience, grit and perseverance. When you understand how people shift, then you can better manage the organizational shift because it’s not organizations that change, it’s people that do.

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